Some brides chicken out before the wedding. My mother chickened out when she saw me with her.
My phone rang before I got off the plane that took me from my new home in Southern California to my home state of South Carolina. My mom texted me, "Trisha, I love you so much, but I can't let you come to my wedding."
I flew across the country for this; it was a rare opportunity to see her. 14 years earlier, the Jehovah's Witness elders expelled me, which means they considered me spiritually dead and excommunicated me from the congregation, including my friends and even my family.
In the 14 years since then, I have tried to remind my mother that I was still alive. From time to time, she would text her photos of my cat or update her with important news, like the arrival of a new cat. B. when I did my PhD. Sometimes she responded. Most of the time she didn't. She refused to attend my own wedding but she did send a gift. I felt that her marriage was my last chance: she would show her that I was still her family, even though she was no longer part of her religion, and that she could still love me. But when my plane landed, she again refused to see me.
She raised me to be a good JW girl. However, just before my 21st birthday, I rejected her God from her and she rejected me. She had an intricate habit of sleeping with my friends: boys, girls, fellow Witnesses, and neighbors who were "worldly," the term Jehovah's Witnesses use for anyone outside of the congregation. I broadcast two worlds: Tuesday and Thursday nights we were at the Kingdom Hall, her house of worship. On Wednesday, a friend and I escaped to the back roads of South Carolina and got into the backseat of my green Chevy Corsica.
Jehovah's Witnesses maintain loyalty by monitoring the actions of members and looking for signs that they are straying from the narrow path. The Governing Body, a group of eight men supposedly appointed by God, dictates a litany of complex rules.
Each Kingdom Hall is governed by elders who enforce these rules. Members are rewarded for their service with additional degrees, access to leadership opportunities, and distinguished teaching positions. For minor offenses, members are punished by public announcement of their sins, silence, and degradation in their titles.
It is a strict hierarchy controlled by fear of Armageddon and threats of excommunication. His rules controlled every aspect of my life, clothing, work, friends, education and entertainment. The life I was offered was filled with friends, family, and security. But it was a small life. I wanted more. The choices they offered were dictated by men who needed the passivity of women in order for men to feel in control. I couldn't accept that.
After I got kicked out, I felt like I left behind a toxic husband, only it was a whole congregation of elders. I felt stoned wearing very short shorts without shame. Being out all night without having to lie about where she was felt like a radical act of self-determination. But the price of my freedom was painful. The elders practically declared me dead and my mother pretended that she was. I mourned the death of her love. She told me that she would not see me until she returned to the Kingdom Hall. She refused to hold me until she was sorry. Her love was a hostage and my regrets were the ransom she didn't want to pay.
When I was first kicked out, all I could think about was surviving: no home, no friends, and no plans for my future. I didn't have time to cry. It wasn't until I started building a new life that I realized what I had lost. It wasn't until I found people who loved me that I discovered that what I missed the most was the love of my mother. All pain is not linear, but the special pain of losing a loved one who is still alive feels new every time I remember their rejection.
Three months before the wedding, she called to share her big news. I was surprised that he called, but the message itself didn't surprise me. A relative had already asked me if I was going to the wedding. I figured he would invite me over at some point. Even if she took me into the family for just one day, I would do anything to show her that I still love her. She still had the chance to choose me. When I finally saw her name on my phone, I picked it up immediately. I heard her story about a whirlwind romance between two people who hadn't dated in 30 years.
"I didn't even know we were dating," she said. But I'm sure she often stopped by for dinner.
"We have 60, why wait?" he added. "I will definitely send you photos of the wedding."
I started my arguments about why he should be invited. "Weddings are times when two people and their families come together," I told him.
"Yes, but you know yours is different," she replied.
"I know, Mom. But you're going to marry this man, and don't you think he deserves to be introduced to all your children?" His silence rang in my ears. "I want to meet him, Mom. I want to see you get married," I said.
She replied quietly, "Well, I can let you know when we set a date for the wedding."
That was a lie. She knew that the date had been set weeks ago. However, she had opened the door a bit. I used this crack to take advantage of his wedding. I called weekly. For the first time in years, he lost weight every time. I asked her about her dress, the flowers and the honeymoon. We talk about women's things: the needs of our husbands, arguments about marriage registries, how much men eat.
She described her boyfriend as a good southern boy who built her a chicken coop and spent his time repairing Kingdom Halls and member homes throughout the South. My mother and her beloved were accompanied during their courtship so that passion would not lead them to sin. Even older members of the community are monitored to make sure they are following the letter of the many laws.
"Even at 60, men are still men, Trisha," she said.
"True, true: men are still men," I mused.
He asked me about my husband Per. I shared stories about my marriage four years ago. He told me that he liked my pink wedding dress and that a pixie cut suited me. I sent her a photo of Per in the kitchen in a flour-covered apron. "He has kind eyes," she replied.
Through our men's stories, a budding relationship began to grow. I showed him the side of me that he could understand: the wife, the gardener, the cook. After a month of talking, he gave me his wedding date.
But when my plane landed the day before the wedding, he changed his mind. Before replying to her message about not inviting me, I ran to the airport bathroom. I cried on the cold floor, angry with myself that he could still hurt me so deeply after all these years. I splashed water on my face and began to beg.
"I'm here, mom. Please look at me."
I asked to see her just for a coffee, for a hug. And she responded with her best attempt at a compliment: "I'm proud you're married and I'd like to meet your husband, but we can't see you."
In a series of subsequent texts, he vacillated between inviting and not inviting.
“When I see you I will only cry and I want to be happy on my wedding day,” she wrote.
"But mom, I'm so happy for you, you must be happy. Let me share your happiness," I pleaded. He eventually agreed to meet me for brunch.
I barely recognized her with wrinkles and powdery white curls instead of the jet black hair I remembered from the last time I saw her. But when she smiled, I saw my mother. Over cookies and smooth coffee, Mom and her fiancée chatted about her busy wedding weekend. After the third cup of coffee, Mom's fiancée patted Per's hand and said, “Well, young man, why don't you and me go for a walk?” He got up and Per was forced to follow him.
Outside, Mom's fiancée explained, "You know Trisha can come back at any time." She said that she had to attend the meetings and ask for forgiveness. "Jodi loves her daughter," she said. "That's why she can't talk to her. But all Trish has to do is go back."
Inside, my mother began her pleas: "If you come back, I'll take care of you, Trisha." She promised that everything could be like before. She could get my family back.
But the return was not easy. For a year I was required to attend meetings and promised not to say a word, not even to my family. I literally had to be silenced for a year. The elders would no doubt demand that I tell them my sins in private to show my regret. These would be tests of obedience and humiliation. Then I would have to submit to the rules, discipline and control of the elders for the rest of my life.
Mom didn't mention any of this, but I was sure there were conditions. I thanked him for the offer, shrugged, and changed the subject. This release was the only way to take care of her. She felt safe and cared for in the religion, and she wanted the same for me. It was the only way he needed to show his love for her, and he couldn't reject it outright. I would do anything to keep our conversation going a little longer. Before leaving the restaurant, my mother's fiancé put his arm around her shoulders and invited us back to the wedding.
On the big day, Per held my hand in his warm palm. As we entered the Kingdom Hall, he was greeted by a blast of air conditioning and then laughter from the congregation. I was the only woman with a pixie cut and my dress had a side slit. Per was the only man with a beard or painted nails. He had left the top two buttons of his shirt undone. All the other men in the room wore ties, including the little boys. We didn't belong here. His thinly veiled gazes followed us as we sat with the bride's family in the front row. But when the music started, all eyes turned to the bride. She was beautiful and radiant in her high necked pink lace gown with subtle lace shawl.
The minister was a plump man with a jovial Carolina accent. As expected, he opened the ceremony and celebrated the joy of the occasion. In a cadence typical of rural southern preachers, he admonished: “Let us remember the importance of the times in which we live. This is the end of all days: Armageddon is on the horizon." He then looked directly at Per and added, "All unrepentant sinners will be destroyed."
The pastor read Colossians 3:18: “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting to the Lord. Husbands, keep loving your wives.” Submission is a prerequisite for a man's love. The minister explained that men can only love their wives if they are properly subjugated by women. He begged the boyfriend to show love to my mother. He never went to my mother to make sure she felt love for her future husband. Instead, the minister asked if she was willing to comply. She must obey "her husband's law," he explained, winking at her. The audience laughed.
After the ceremony ended with a loud "Amen" and a sweet kiss, the couple walked down the aisle, embracing like young lovers. Per and I stood at the end of the line to send our best wishes to the couple. As I hugged my mother, I hugged her tight and didn't let go. I inhaled from her the strong perfume of her Estée Lauder. Her lace dress was stiff. Her body was smooth.
This could be our last hug, maybe forever, I realized. Our mothers are our first home. As he held her, my whole body clung to the home I had lost. My mother was right: she would make her sad. She would make her cry. we both cried. I don't remember who took me away from her. I remember that it was not my choice.
Just as holding my mother felt like coming home, leaving the Kingdom Hall felt like a sweet escape. As we left the building, I felt the soft warmth of the night, and Per's arm wrapped around me. We drank bourbon on a sweltering lakeside patio while the rest of the guests made their way to the reception to eat cake and dance the electric slide. I hadn't been invited to the reception and I knew I didn't belong there. My mother and I lived in different worlds. He longed to have a relationship with her. I longed to laugh with her for hours while drinking way too much coffee and eating carbs. But she could never live in her world again.
Mom went on her honeymoon. I flew to California. She started ignoring my messages again until Thanksgiving. I sent you a picture of the pecan pie that I burned. She immediately responded, “Top it with lots and lots of whipped cream. No one will know better.” She always burned dessert, too.
Before the wedding I had no photos of Mom. I now have a handful of photos of us at the ceremony on my phone. We are the same size. Our shoulders are delicate parallel lines that descend into strong arms. I've been told I have my dad's smile, but my eyes get smaller as my smile gets wider, just like mom's eyes. We both look happy and heartbroken.
When I look at the photo, I know that she has always loved me. I grew up believing in a resurrection. My mother and I hold on to the belief in a resurrection. She expects me to repent and be saved. I went to the wedding hoping to rekindle something semblance of a relationship. Through hope, we both show that our love is alive in our different worlds.
Trish Fancher is a California-based writer, teacher, and feminist. Her personal essays have appeared in Autostraddle, Catapult, Northwest Review and the upcoming Sun magazine. She can be found on Twitter from time to time and eagerly.@trish_fancher.
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